The Sound of Music includes a scene in which the Baroness Schraeder character explains to her friend Max Detweiler how she plans to avoid the chores of motherhood after marrying Capt. von Trapp, a widower with seven children. When Detweiler doubts Schraeder’s ability to raise a family, the Baroness asks pointedly, “Darling, haven’t you ever heard of a delightful little thing called boarding school?”
Thus Schraeder vocalizes the myth that boarding schools are convenient places to send children when they become inconveniences. The reality is that parents send their children away to boarding school because they believe that it’s the right thing to do.
Sarah C. Kendrick, director of admission and financial aid at Le Mans Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in grades five through nine located in Rolling Prairie, Ind., says parents who choose to send their children to boarding schools do so out of a sense of duty and responsibility to their children, not to get the kids out of the house. “I would say that our parents are sending their kids here because they want them to have better opportunities,” she says.
Providing those opportunities, however, comes with a price: the absence of your offspring. Baroness Schraeder notwithstanding, most parents enjoy the company of their children and relish the opportunity to watch them grow up. The notion of children living away from home during their teen years can be harrowing, even for parents committed to sending them to boarding schools. For example, when Karyn and Dieter Herterich sent their son, Morgan, away to Christ School in Arden, N.C., which was founded by Episcopal missionaries in 1900, they instinctively knew it would change the family dynamic, even if the school was only an hour’s drive away from their home in Blowing Rock, N.C. “When we gave him up in the ninth grade, we knew that we were giving him up forever,” says Karyn Herterich.
While phone calls and e-mails help to bridge the distance, John Dey, an entrepreneur from Klamath Falls, Ore., routinely traveled with his wife, Nancy, to see his son and two daughters when they attended the Webb Schools in Claremont, Calif. “It’s like that for any parents who care about their children,” says John Dey. “You’re not going to be spending time with them; you’re going to be gone during a critical time of their lives. We made up for that by traveling to the school.”
Given the emotional toll and the financial investment of boarding school (tuition alone can run up to $30,000 a year), parents have every reason to wonder if it represents the best option for their children. A well-run boarding school—one with a dedicated staff, a rigorous academic program, and an abundance of extracurricular activities beyond the varsity sports teams—has its obvious upsides, but not every child is capable of taking advantage of the benefits.
Ultimately, parents have to be honest with themselves about their children’s abilities to adapt to the boarding school environment, says Tim Reuben, a trial attorney in Beverly Hills who attended the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and whose daughter attends the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif. “There are reasons for a kid to go to a boarding school and reasons for a kid not to go to a boarding school,” says Reuben, “and the decision has to be based on the needs of the child.” The best reason for sending children away to school, he says, is that it affords them educational and social opportunities they wouldn’t have if they attended a public school or even a private day school.
The benefits of a boarding school education have become obvious to Reuben during the 22 years that he has served as an admissions interviewer for Harvard Univer-sity, his alma mater. Time and again, the student interviews confirm for Reuben that boarding schools typically graduate students who are better prepared for college, by providing more rigorous academic instruction than public schools and by doing a better job of promoting interests outside the classroom. “It’s because boarding schools are small,” Reuben says. “If a kid doesn’t make the varsity team, for example, he’ll get funneled into another sport or activity.”
While the best private day schools may offer the same superior academic and extracurricular opportunities, says Reuben, they cannot provide the same prospects for emotional growth that boarding schools can. Part of that has to do with students being away from home, and part is because of the company boarding school students keep. In addition to being exposed to other intelligent and competitive students, children are challenged by faculty members committed to the students’ academic achievements as well as their emotional development.
The impact of interacting with boarding school faculty cannot be overstated, says Reuben. While teens may resist advice from their parents about social graces and the requirements of adulthood, they are more willing to listen to adults outside their family—in this case the school faculty. On this score, Reuben, who asked to be sent to boarding school after the eighth grade, speaks from experience. “I wanted to go away because at that point in time, I was not getting along with my mother,” he explains. “I thought everything she did or said was inappropriate for me and that she shouldn’t be telling me what to do.” Going away to school didn’t drive a permanent wedge between mother and son. On the contrary, the two are closer now than they ever were. “I see my mother every day,” says Reuben. “She works for me.”
Students can also have positive impacts on each other, says Karyn Herterich. Before Morgan attended Christ School, she and her husband were becoming increasingly concerned about his choice of clothes. While they never allowed him to don the baggy pants and loose T-shirts that an increasing number of hometown friends were wearing, Morgan was beginning to rebel against wearing attire suitable for the adult world. “Morgan grew up with good manners, but they were going to hell here [in Blowing Rock],” she says. Now, after a couple of years at the Christ School, Morgan wears ties and jackets without complaint and has even begun wearing bow ties.
“We went into Brooks Brothers,” Herterich recalls. “My son took a bow tie off the rack and tied it perfectly in under a minute. The salesman was astonished. He said most men never learn how to tie bow ties.” When moments like these take place, Herterich says, she and her husband look at each other, smile, and say, “Our tuition money at work.”
James Sharp Brodsky, president of Sharp Communications, a New York advertising and public relations agency, vouches for the positive impact that boarding school can have on a student’s development. Brodsky attended the Pomfret School in Connecticut and flourished in the school’s demanding social environment, which included formal meals at which students dined with their classroom instructors. “You can’t run home to mom and dad at the end of the day,” says Brodsky. “When classes are over you still have to live there. You have to learn how to deal with your classmates. It’s either become a player or don’t. You become a stronger person that way.”
Most of the time teenagers respond well to the challenges of living away from home, says Reuben, but not always. Some kids are not prepared emotionally, and forcing a child to leave home against his or her will is not a good idea. Parents should also take note if children exhibit signs of excessive insecurity in their current school environments. Sending them away could make a difficult situation worse, Reuben says. “You need to have a kid who will not likely be victimized,” he explains. “An example of that is a boy who is particularly effeminate. There are some kids who are more effeminate than others, and in those teenage years, they’re more likely to get picked on. It’s a sad truth. It’s likely to happen in any school, but at a day school they can at least come home to their parents as sort of a safe haven.”
Boarding schools can provide some emotional support and protection if it is not available at home. Reuben cautions that boarding schools cannot take the place of parents, but sometimes it is helpful to send a child to a boarding school if the parents can’t provide the structure a child needs to develop emotionally, socially, and academically because of, say, a demanding career or a bitter divorce. “The right combination of parents and boarding school allows kids to be the best they can be,” Reuben says.
There is a limit, however, to how much structure boarding schools can provide, says Colin Dunnigan, director of admission at Christ School. Particularly rebellious children aren’t always the best candidates for academically centered boarding schools, Dunnigan says, adding that a better choice under these circumstances would be one of a large number of boarding schools geared toward helping troubled students mature. “If they come in with very little self-confidence, they are typically going to gravitate to other students who are not leaders of the school,” he says. “They are going to find ways to subvert what we are trying to do as a community or find ways to get affirmation from their peers by breaking rules, drinking, using drugs, or hazing.”
While boarding school is not the best option for students with obvious emotional problems, Dunnigan says, he doesn’t think children should have the power to veto their parents’ decision to send them to boarding school, nor should they be allowed to select a school that isn’t sufficiently challenging. This is one decision for which parents will likely have to abandon any pretense of allowing their children to do what makes them happy. Certainly, parents and children have to come to some sort of consensus over the issue, but the authority and responsibility should ultimately reside with the parents, says Dunnigan. “Fifteen- or 16-year-old kids don’t have the experience or decision-making ability to decide where they should be educated,” he says. “Kids will choose places where things are easier for them and where things are more comfortable and familiar.”
The fundamental reason for sending children to boarding school, Dey says, is to expand the opportunities available to them when they become adults. “Going to a good school, getting a good education, and making good friends—all those things give people more opportunities than people without that experience,” he says.
That doesn’t mean parents will miss their children any less, although Dey has no regrets about sending his children to boarding school—one is now attending Stanford, an-other is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Oregon, and the oldest is working in Colorado after graduating from college. “What could be more noble,” he asks, “than to spend money giving your child what you perceive to be the best experience he or she could ever have?”
Herterich agrees. “You do feel to some extent that you’ve lost them, but you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s for the greater good.”